Tribalism means that even atheists will fight amongst themselves.

I’ve been asked by various believers on occasion if I felt that the world would be a better place if religious belief could be eliminated and my knee-jerk response is usually to agree that I think it would indeed be better. What I often fail to point out, however, is that this isn’t the same as saying I think all conflicts would cease. I am reminded of this simple truth by an inter-blog flame war that appears to be heating up between two atheists blogs I read daily. It all started with a post on “God is for Suckers!” about reclaiming the word “Liberal”:

One of the things I am completely SICK OF is the bashing of the word “liberalism.” It’s been going on for 20-odd years in the U.S.A. and is completely just fucking WRONG. Liberalism is actually quite a rational and legitimate worldview, no matter your politics or religion. Liberalism practically epitomizes the idea of freedom.

If you’re an SEB regular then you already know I consider myself to be a Liberal and I have no real problem with the statement above in itself, but it appears to have set off a fellow by the name of Francois Tremblay at “Goosing the Antithesis” which I also read daily. His response in an entry titled Politics is for Suckers! actually surprised me:

With such rhetoric, is it any wonder that atheism is painted as an ally of political coercion, when they see atheists calling a strong ruling class whose goal it is to impose their value system on all of society by force “the idea of freedom”? Liberals go against centuries of civil disobedience and our constant attempt to take down the power of kings and tyrants.

Atheist liberals are especially hypocrite, since they praise the ruling class that marginalizes them, and they praise the democracy that gives the religious majority power to oppress them. To be an atheist liberal makes about as much sense as being a gay Christian.

In the name of all atheist libertarians and anarchists, who actually care about the freedom of everyone to live the way they want and the freedom from political power, permit me to politely say “go fuck yourselves”.

Again, if you are an SEB regular then you already know that I have a major Libertarian streak in my Liberalism—in fact I often refer to myself as a Liberal-Libertarian.

Needless to say I’ve been following the escalating flame war with interest. On GifS the argument has kept itself limited to the one entry whereas Tremblay seems intent on trying to fan the flames as much as possible. He’s left a few short and abrasive comments on the original GifS thread while over on “Goosing” he’s gone on to declare “open season on the Atheist Liberals,” put up a “Imagine No Liberals” graphic on the site, and has made the subject of liberal atheists the most recent Question of the Day:

Why are there so many “liberal atheists”, when liberalism encourages majority rule and therefore marginalizes atheists? Doesn’t that make as little sense as “gay Christians”?

Note that it’s simply a condensed version of his original rant. It seems to me Tremblay is doing his best to make an ass of himself, but that’s not why I’m writing about all of this. I’m writing because it reminds me of the true cause of so many of the world’s conflicts: Tribalism and the type of thinking it engenders. Back in May of 2004 I wrote a big entry on the problem of tribalism in response to the beheading of Nick Berg. The short of it is that tribalism is a part of human nature, indeed it may have been key to our early survival as a species, and it permeates a lot of how we think about ourselves and our relation to other people. Most commonly it manifests itself as the classic “Us vs. Them” line of reasoning and a lot of the time—such as with fans of rival sports teams—it’s relatively harmless. However, when it’s taken to the extreme it not only allows for open warfare, but makes the unthinkable not only possible but acceptable.

Now I’m not suggesting that the “libertarian atheists” of Goosing the Antithesis are gearing up to start beheading the “liberal atheists” of God is for Suckers (well, Tremblay himself might be gearing up). I am pointing out that, even without religion in the world, there will still be plenty of other reasons for folks to divide themselves up into different groups and throw stones—metaphorical or literal—at each other. Religion is (to borrow an analogy from Alonzo Fyfe) just another “flag” for people to rally around and assume fighting positions over and if we didn’t have the various religions to use as a focus then we’d come up with something else be it Republican vs. Democrat, Americans vs. Europe, or Liberals vs Conservatives vs Libertarians and so on ad nauseam. So while I do think the world would be better without religion in it, I don’t for a second think that it would be the end to all conflict.

Speaking of Alonzo, he chimes in on the GifS entry as well. It’s his post that reminded me of what I’d written earlier. Here’s a sample:

Though the current conflicts seem to be between different religious camps for the most part, I see no real reason to believe that if we put an end of these religious wars (by putting an end to faith), that secular camps will not spring up and conflicts between secular views will not rise to take the place of conflicts over religious views.

There are those who would blame faith for much of the conflict in the world today. I would like to suggest that the culprit in this case is not faith, but arrogance. Faith may well feed arrogance in that there is no better sign of arrogance than that of a person who believes that he serves as the one and only right-hand God and is His personal messenger on earth. However, faith is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for arrogance.

Yet, a person does not have to have faith to be arrogant. The post about reclaiming the word ‘liberal’, and many of the comments made in response to this post, support this thesis. Atheists can rally around a flag where they feed on a diet of mutual contempt for some ‘enemy’ that flies a different flag. Under different circumstances, it is not at all difficult to see these camps going to war, and for the world to witness a level of secular vs. secular violence comparable to any sectarian conflict.

Alonzo is taking the folks at GifS to task in his entry, but it’s worth noting that the flame fanning by Tremblay is quite illustrative of the point Alonzo is making. Tremblay is obviously spoiling for a fight over a difference in political viewpoint and neither side seems all that willing to discuss their point of view in a reasonable manner or with an eye to compromise. As a whole the situation is an example of how the world wouldn’t necessarily be all that much improved if everyone were an atheist.

Tribalism, as said previously, is a part of human nature and thusly isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s also not entirely a bad thing so even if we could eliminate it that wouldn’t mean it would be a good idea to do so. So what do we do about it?

We learn to live with it. We try to recognize when we’re letting it override our ability to reason. We do our best to try and avoid letting other people manipulate us with it. We endeavor to find ways of looking at the world as to make the “us” as inclusive as we possibly can because if there’s no “them” to fight against then there’s no reason to fight. It won’t always work, but even small successes can avoid a lot of unnecessary turmoil.

15 thoughts on “Tribalism means that even atheists will fight amongst themselves.

  1. Tremblay is violently attacking a strawman, and I would have said so on his own blog if he didn’t have such restrictive comment policies.

    “Liberal” in contemporary U.S. discourse just means being anti-fascist.  That’s all it takes to be a liberal. 

    You think we ought to have laws restricting who the government can spy on?  Liberal.  You noticed that we already have those laws and think the government should actually obey them?  Liberal.  You think it’s wrong to lie in order to start wars?  Liberal.  You think when one side of a war kills 500 civilians in retaliation for the other side killing 50 civilians, we ought to condemn *both* sides?  Liberal.  You think everyone ought to have the right to express opposition to the government’s policies without getting death threats for it?  Liberal.

    It’s no wonder GifS wants to reclaim the term – it’s practically meaningless.

    Tremblay, on the other hand, seems to honestly expect to find a couple million Stalinists in his closet.  Marxism is dead.  No, really, it is.  You don’t need to tie the corpse to a windmill in order to tilt at it.

  2. A great example for me of such tribalism is The Raving Atheist. This guy is most assuredly an atheist, yet on many topics he is as conservative as most fundies. His anti-choice stance is especially baffling from my standpoint.

    Needless to say, he’s received quite a bit of flack from other bloggers, including some highly entertaining commentary from one of my favorite sites on the entire Internet, Pandagon. The whole thing is certainly interesting to observe.

  3. Chris, I was going to leave a couple of comments on Tremblay’s posts at Goosing, but I too didn’t feel like registering a blogger account just for the small contribution I was going to make. If I thought I might be inclined to comment again in the future I’d go ahead and do it, but I don’t foresee it happening.

    SS, Raving Atheist has been in and out of my RSS feed several times now. I don’t have a problem with him being anti-abortion as he seems to have thought out his reasons well enough. I don’t agree with him on it, but I don’t fault him for holding that position. Reading his blog, however, is like gawking at a accident scene. I really shouldn’t pay it any attention, but I do.

  4. Yet again, I’m so glad that my freshman History prof. made us read Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”.  Bottom line, the fanatic is a damaged soul looking for redemption.  And the name of that redemption—be it a religion or “ism”—is pretty much a matter of chance.  But after that long-winded digression, I have to say that I agree with Les.  If we all woke up tomorrow blind to race, gender, nationality, and free of religion, some people would find hundreds of “reasons” to hate other people before breakfast and trying to get other people to hate them before lunch.

  5. I completely agree with your statement that the world would be better – but still far from perfect – without religion. Ridding the world of religion would eliminate an important source of conflict but certainly not the only one.

    Don’t confuse a flame war between blogs with tribalism, as I’m not sure that it reflects more than the pathology of one of the parties. Your assessment of Tremblay is on point. He is best ignored. I’ve grown increasingly tired of his efforts to incite conflict and no longer count myself among his regular readers. There are too many quality atheist blogs out there now to waste time on Goosing.

  6. Death to all fanatics!

    Maybe this is the reason the Drazi on Babylon 5 had the Green and Purple conflicts.  Got the tribalism out of the way for another 6 years.

  7. This is in regards to the Raving Atheist comments.  Has anyone been there lately?  For the last month or so there’s been nothing but head-scratching going on in regards to RA’s new “niceness” policy.  (He has vowed to henceforth not “malign” religion in any way.)  The consensus—although it is in no way unanimous—seems to be that he’s full-out converted.  I wouldn’t encourage anyone who hasn’t been keeping an eye on it to check it out, as the posts have become so pathetically lame.  However, if anyone here has been keeping up, what’s your take?
    (I don’t wanna be too hard on RA, because some good has come out of it: It was the site that originally referred me to SEB.)

  8. Bystander: However, if anyone here has been keeping up, what’s your take?

    I haven’t read TRA for some time, but I’ve always thought the guy was a little unhinged. He rants constantly about “godidiots,” yet his work at a so-called “Crisis Pregnancy Center” surely puts him squarely in the midst of such “godidiots” on a regular basis. He’s never struck me as a particularly nice guy, and I find his decision to never again speak ill of Christianity utterly bizarre, given his blog contents. What exactly will he be raving against (besides abortion) then?

  9. I’ve been following the new and improved version of RA and, if nothing else, it’s an interesting experiment on his part. He seems to be attempting a fair amount of self-reflection, or at least putting on a good show of such, and that’s never a bad thing in my book.

    I’ve never been a big fan or detractor of his so I’m not really invested one way or the other. If he’s serious then more power to him, but if it’s just a gimmick (as it sometimes feels like it is) then it only proves my cynicism right once again.

  10. Sadie, I completely agree with your assessment of RA as “a little unhinged.”  When I first started reading his blog, it was cool that he was hitting bac—and hard—at the religionists.  Then he started getting heavily into his anti-abortion rants.  Now this.  But like so many of the posters on his site, I can’t help going back, day by day, to see how far gone he is.  I guess I’m just another one of those train-wreck rubberneckers.

  11. Hello SEB. Thank you for the comment. I am not actually “at war” with God is for Suckers!. This is my last month of regular posting on Goosing the Antithesis, so I was inspired by their insane entry to start a “war against liberal atheists”.

    It’ll probably peter out into obscurity, however (like Hellbound Alleee’s “war against relativists”). Still, I think I made my point clear in the entries you quoted.

    And perhaps I have been a bit hard on the people at God is for Suckers!. Like many atheists, they have probably been lured into the religion of liberalism because they were repelled by the Christian domination of the Republican Party.

    Like Zach said, I think a lot of people are gonna be very happy to see me go… wink

  12. I’ve been keeping up at RA and making VERY small comments here and there, but for me it isn’t about what he writes anymore. It’s all about the comment threads and he doesn’t seem to participate there at all anymore. I literally skim the posts and read all the comments. It usually ends up being about something other than the post anyway…. kinda like this thread. grin

  13. There’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that we would still have conflict and warfare in a religion free world.
        Althugh it may look like it on the surface, few wars have ever been fought for religius reasons. Religion is just used as a means to justify wars and make the peple who wage them feel better about themselves.
        Wars are mostly fought for resources. It could be the large metal deposits in Viet Nam, water sources, hunting grounds, or the big one for the last 50 years, oil.
        One of the very first paragraphs in my military requirements course I recently took dealt with the importance of protecting oil sources and shipping lanes.
        Animals certainly aren’t religious, but will fight toth and nail for resources as well. (No matter how many people say that humans are the only species that kill for personal gain)
        The first episode of Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet would clear that position up. Those little fellas are cute as can be, but will fight and kill to try and obtain the resources and land of anther group of Meerkats. The head female will kill the young of her own daughter as well in order to make sure her young survive first.
        So nope…..a religion free world wouldn’t end conflict by a long shot. It would free up 25% of the land in the U.S. however that is owned by churches. I’m also thinking of convincing everybody to switch to burials at sea to free up all that good land covered by tombstones.

  14. I agree it’s true that religion is only one of many possible “tribal” divisions, and that being rid of it, there would still be conflict.  Still, religion is a particilarily nasty one – because it overrides everything else for the believer. 

    Imagine two secular groups coming into conflict.  At least they can reason with each other, rather than thump their 2000 year old books in protest.

  15. Jeff: Imagine two secular groups coming into conflict. At least they can reason with each other, rather than thump their 2000 year old books in protest.

    Hitler’s expansionism had little to do with religion and more to do with the superiority of the Aryan race.
    In my opinion, religion was used to add heat to the fire.

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